TAGAB VALLEY, Afghanistan – As a teenager is released to village elders, a U.S. commander warns him to stay away from the Taliban fighters with whom he was arrested. Then the American orders him to thank the district police chief for his freedom.
"Listen to me: he's your hero, not Taliban," the commander tells the bearded young man.
Police Col. Zelawar Zahed wasn't involved in the arrest and didn't have the power to release the youth on his own. But the nod to his authority indicates one key way in which NATO and the U.S. are seeking to rescue their faltering efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
The international community has spent several years and hundreds of millions of dollars training Afghanistan's army and police.
Afghan forces will play a vital role in securing presidential elections expected in July. Ultimately, they are supposed to reach a strength that allows the foreign troops to go home.
But they have often failed to prevent insurgents from filtering back into areas cleared in sweeps led by international forces, endangering civilians who may have sided with the government — and forcing the troops to start all over again.
In Kapisa Province's Tagab district, just 30 miles from Kabul, NATO forces are trying to use a hard-won peace to instill the authority of their firepower in the police, who are often seen as the weakest force in Afghanistan's violent areas.
U.S. forces teach the police commando-style military tactics and work to make men like Zahed the public face of the effort to rout out militants. The idea is to encourage communities to turn to police to settle personal feuds, rather than to Taliban or other militants.
Though imperfect, the training and coordination with police present a rare success story in a country where military offenses have repeatedly given way to chaotic violence.
U.S. commanders say their aggressive targeting of well-known insurgents has greatly pacified southern Kapisa province over the past year. Violent incidents are down sharply, from 15 or more in most months of 2008 to just six in February.
NATO Humvees used to come under fire whenever they drove off their small base, and militants killed 10 French troops just outside Tagab in August.
With the Humvees seldom seeing firefights nowadays, NATO forces took an Associated Press reporter to the area last week to demonstrate their achievements. They view the security gains as an opportunity to give more responsibility to the Afghans — in this case, the police.
The Americans say they have given Zahed's 170 police officers a year of military-style training, including how to react to ambushes, conduct foot patrols in hostile areas, search for explosives and raid militant compounds without getting killed.
Zahed said the training saved his life during a road ambush in July. His men reacted quickly and pushed back their assailants. He escaped with two bullet wounds.
Previously, coalition forces went on raids accompanied by only a couple of Afghan police — token representatives who entered houses first but had no real authority, Zahed said. Now teams of 15-30 police conduct raids and patrols on their own, using French or U.S. forces only as backup.
That's important in a country where civilian deaths are regularly blamed on international troops storming into houses and failing to distinguish militants from villagers.
U.S. soldiers say the training means that militants now view the police checkpoints dotting the main road in Tagab as serious barriers rather than easy targets.
Zahed claimed his units also patrol militant-infested valleys because they know they can call in air support or coalition quick-reaction forces if they end up in a firefight.
They also gather intelligence for the Afghan army and perform joint patrols, he said.
Still, problems were evident last week in a daily meeting among the heads of the Afghan police and army for the district and leaders of American and French forces in the area.
At the meeting, attended by an AP reporter, the Afghan army commander described a raid on a house in which two men escaped. An American trainer asked why he didn't call in the police to help. The commander didn't have an answer. He hadn't thought to.
And communication can still be dangerously erratic. On Friday, a joint Afghan-coalition patrol killed two Afghan policemen who opened fire on them in Tagab district.
Ahunzada, the head of the Tagab district administration, said residents were pleased with the Afghan security forces. Like many Afghans, he goes by one name.
But he said he couldn't foresee a day when the foreign troops would be able to leave. Col. Zahed, the police chief, agreed.
And the district is far from safe. Nighttime curfews keep villagers in their houses. Police and coalition forces have lists of militants they want to apprehend. And civilians still get caught in the crossfire. In January, a raid by international forces in the village of Inzeri killed 15 people. One of them was a militant commander named Mullah Patang but most were civilians.
The warmer months ahead will be the real test of the new policing strategies and the coordination between the forces. Violence usually ebbs in Afghanistan during the winter, and winter snows make it difficult for militants to travel over mountain passes into Tagab.
Zahed said he offered to pull together warring families to mediate some of the long-standing feuds that push people to seek protection from militants.
But local elder Haaji Khashal said some people are afraid to take the police chief up on the offer because they're worried about getting arrested as Taliban. Some of them, he admits, are Taliban.